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DANCING ENGLAND - Nottingham Playhouse - 26 January 2019

Dancing England was an annual event from 1979 to 1987, held in Derby, and was relaunched two years ago in Sheffield. It’s taken another two years and a move to Nottingham for the next one to happen, but it was worth it.

Arriving early, we found that there was plenty going on with well-supported rapper sword and clog dance workshops during the afternoon, plus displays and exhibitions on morris and sword dancing, traders’ stalls and a film show from Doc Rowe. However, when we wanted to eat, the café in the Playhouse had just closed and was changing to its evening pre-theatre restaurant service, but Nottingham is well served with places to eat and drink and we soon found somewhere suitable.

Sullivan’s Sword, a local dance side, was providing pre-show entertainment by performing longsword dances in the foyer when we returned to the theatre. Taking our seats in the Circle looking down on the stage, we wondered if a show of traditional dance and folklore would work in this more formal setting compared to the way it had previously been performed in the round. We needn’t have worried. The almost full house enjoyed a brilliant three hour show with an exceptionally high standard and quality of dancing, music and acts. Most forms of traditional English dance were on display and, with such variety, it’s hard to select highlights from the 15 performances.

Carnival morris amazed those who had not seen it before with Orcadia Morris impressing all the dancers in the audience with their precision and energy. The Dolphin Morris Men recreated a 300-year-old tradition of the Nottingham Dancing Butchers playing meat cleavers with ‘marrow bones’ rather like a group of handbell ringers – but how do you tune bones and cleavers? The Knaresborough Mummers kept tradition alive and moving forward with their hilarious mummers play, The Farce Awakens, starring Luke Warmwater and characters from science fiction films and TV programmes.

An unexpected bonus of a staged theatre show for many of the morris dancers was the backstage support and dressing room facilities. However, there were a couple of falls during the dancing which may have been caused by dancing on a raked stage and some of the acts with only a few dancers in their sets looked a little lost in such a large space, although others managed to make the most of it. Perhaps stagecraft is a skill morris sides will have to learn?

The evening finished with Rhianwen Davies and the Melrose Ceilidh Band leading a ceilidh dance on the crowded stage while many of the performers and audience stayed on to watch and listen.

One of Dancing England’s straplines is “where the tradition moves on” yet most of the dancers performing were the same ones who had performed in the 1980s and there were very few women dancers despite them making up more than half of all morris dancers today. The tradition needs to catch up before it can move on. And if Dancing England also aims “to showcase the best of traditional dance in the UK, along with unique and/or interesting folk customs to celebrate the UK's wide cultural heritage” perhaps other parts of the UK can be included?

Let’s hope this show of traditional dance moves on and continues to celebrate our wonderful traditions and customs in such a magnificent way, and, with plans to return to the Nottingham Playhouse next year, Dancing England is once again on the annual folk calendar.

Mike Everett